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Photo Credit: © Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

GDB 38.0: Depth Down The Middle (8pm MT, SNW)

Indulge yourself for a moment and think about how different things could look for the Edmonton Oilers in the coming weeks.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins returns to the lineup tonight after being injured on New Year’s Eve in New Jersey. The penalty kill has missed him immensely. He’ll also help the power play. And if the Oilers are thinking big picture he should remain the third line centre the rest of the season.

I understood why he played left wing last season. Edmonton didn’t have enough top-six talented players. But this season is different. Zach Hyman, Warren Foegele and Brendan Perlini have more skill than the left wing options last season. And Dylan Holloway is percolating in the AHL. Holloway has a skill set the Oilers haven’t had in a left winger since Taylor Hall. I’m not saying Holloway will be a driver like Hall, but Holloway does possess similar speed, and he has a more physical dimension than Hall. Holloway has a similar strong, bent over power stride like Hall, but he might have better balance from skating and training with Oilers skating coach David Pelletier for two months.

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“I wasn’t able to shoot for the first two months after my surgery,” Holloway explained. “I wasn’t allowed to touch a puck so it was just a lot of skating. Dave Pelletier, our skating coach, helped me a lot on edge work and a lot of his drills he put me through focused on backwards skating, crossovers, turning and it made me feel way more balanced and comfortable on my skates. I feel I’ve improved a lot. Little things like coming out of pivots and coming out of turns and being more balanced and able to maintain your speed. It is an underrated skill, but very hard to do and after two months I feel I got a lot better.”

He played his first two pro games on the weekend and picked up three assists. Bakersfield plays tomorrow, Friday and Saturday and then again the following Friday and Saturday, while the NHL is off for the All-Star weekend. I’m not sure if seven AHL games is enough for Holloway to be NHL-ready, but if it is he could be in the lineup after the All-Star break on February 8th. Edmonton plays eight games in 13 day between February 8th-20th. They will likely need 14 or 15 forwards at that time. Maybe Holloway is recalled and plays in five or six of those games. Maybe he is ready for all eight. Realistically he likely isn’t ready until some time in March, but as I wrote at the top of the article, indulge yourself for a moment.

Hyman, if he tests out of COVID, will be available to return this Thursday against Nashville. Hyman hasn’t been the same since his shoulder injury, and while getting COVID isn’t ideal, the extra rest probably helped him. Getting RNH and Hyman back this week will be a huge boost to the PK and the Oilers 5×5 play. Then they could add Holloway in a few weeks, and then there is the wildcard in Evander Kane. I wrote last week his camp was hoping to have a resolution to the investigation by yesterday. That didn’t happen, but it could occur this week.

If Kane doesn’t face a lengthy suspension, then teams will try to sign him. Edmonton will be in the running. Kane will want to go somewhere he can produce in the hopes of earning a bigger contract, and be on a winning team. Not many teams can offer the chance to play with the likes of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. And while the Oilers aren’t a legit Cup contender today, they do play in the Pacific Division and winning a round or two might be viewed as a tad easier than winning two rounds in the other three divisions.

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If somehow the Oilers were able to add Holloway and Kane, and have RNH and Hyman healthy again, suddenly their forward lineup is much deeper.

Kane-McDavid-Yamamoto
Holloway-Draisaitl-Puljujarvi
Foegele-RNH-Hyman
Perlini/Shore-McLeod-Kassian

Derek Ryan or Colton Sceviour could be the 14th forward. I had Hyman with RNH because Hyman can take face offs on RNH’s weak side. But I think Puljujarvi might be the best fit to play with RNH. Maybe Hyman stays on the left side and Foegele plays with McLeod. Regardless of the combinations, the depth of the forward group would be much better and the Oilers wouldn’t have parted with any assets.

Even if they don’t sign Kane, I’d still play RNH as the third line centre. He has 10 goals and 24 points at 5×5 in his last 82 games (last season and this season) and he spent close to 80% of that time with either McDavid or Draisaitl. It won’t be difficult for Holloway, Foegele or Perlini to produce at that rate. So there isn’t a loss of production with RNH moving down, but he is an upgrade on Ryan McLeod or Derek Ryan as the third line centre.

Moving RNH to the middle now strengthens the team. Moving RNH out of the top six won’t severely weaken the top-six, due to the skill of Hyman, Holloway and others.

Edmonton needs to improve other areas of their team, but moving RNH to the third line centre is the right decision. I’d keep him there and experiment with different top-nine combinations in the coming weeks.

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LINEUPS…

Oilers

McLeod – McDavid – Yamamoto
Foegele – Draisaitl – Puljujarvi
Perlini – RNH – Kassian
Shore – Ryan – Sceviour

Nurse – Bouchard
Keith – Ceci
Russell – Koekkoek

Koskinen

Nugent-Hopkins and Kassian return to the lineup, while Ryan McLeod is moved up to McDavid’s wing. I’ve seen many asking why Shore is in over Benson. I’d guess it is likely due to these four stats.

Since the Oilers returned to play after Christmas they have played eight games. In those eight games they have been outscored 20-17 at 5×5. They’ve outshot teams 215-207.

In those eight games Shore has a 53.3FF% (56-49), a 52.7SF% (39-35), a 100GF% (4-0) and a 46.7xGF%.
In five games Benson has a 53.3FF% (40-35), a 53.4SF% (31-27), a 50GF% (2-2) and a 44xGF%.

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I realize Shore had brutal underlying numbers earlier this season, but lately he has been fine. When the Oilers are healthy and when Holloway is recalled I don’t think Shore or Benson will be in the lineup regularly.

Canucks

Miller – Pettersson – Boeser
Highmore –Lammikko – Motte
Hoglander – Dickinson – Chiasson
Bailey – Dowling  – Podkolzin

OEL – Myers
Hughes – Poolman
Burroughs – Schenn

Martin

Thatcher Demko and Jaroslav Halak are still in COVID protocol so Martin starts in goal. JT Miller is out of protocol and returns to the lineup tonight. The Canucks line aren’t guaranteed, but likely very close. Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson, today, are also in protocol. This is not close to a full Canucks lineup.

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The Canucks had an initial bump under Bruce Boudreau, but they are 4-4-2 in their last 10. Injuries and COVID has played a factor, no doubt, with Miller, Demko and Halak all out.

Edmonton needs to take advantage of the Canucks missing their top two goalies. They can’t let Spencer Martin, and a depleted Canucks team, shut them down tonight.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING…

From Canucksarmy.com:

When asked about his time in protocol J.T. Miller said he feels used to dealing with COVID layoffs now, but that even with so many teammates out his focus remains squarely on winning the next game regardless of circumstance.

“It’s very cliché, but you take it game by game and we have a lot of tough opponents coming up,” Miller said. “It’s going to be hard but I think we’re gonna be excited to embrace the challenge, and I think we totally understand it doesn’t matter who we’re playing on what night, we need two points.”

Head coach Bruce Boudreau was able to provide an update on a number of players under protocol, with Jaroslav Halak and Conor Garland slated to return in Winnipeg on Thursday and Bo Horvat expected back against Calgary on Saturday. As for Miller, Boudreau didn’t need to say much about what his absence and subsequent return means for the team.

“He’s our leading point guy, he’s probably our leading spokesman in the room, he’s a really good hockey player,” Boudreau said. “The last two games we played really hard and I thought we played well, but we certainly lacked a bit of scoring and J.T. can provide that.”

TONIGHT…

Photoshop: Tom Kostiuk

GAME DAY PREDICTION: A modest two-game winning streak for the Oilers and they improve to 10-2 v. the Pacific with a 4-2 win.

OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: McDavid scores his first 5×5 point in five games. He adds a second for good measure.

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NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Edmonton scores first for the first time in 10 games. It’s true, scoring first is still allowed.

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